Collaboration Will Take Us Where Competition Can’t
by Michael Sussman
Across the world at any moment, on any given day, billions of people go about their business looking out for each other’s best interests. The world would not work as well as it does if that wasn’t true. Cooperation and thoughtfulness abound, while selfish, antagonistic acts pale in numbers.
“Are people inherently compassionate or self-centered?” has remained an oft-posed question because of the difference in impact between acts of cooperation or love and acts of aggression or thoughtlessness.
Hug someone today and the feeling of love can fade by tomorrow. You almost have to hug them over and over again, and we do. Shoot or knife someone, drive drunk and crash, or meanly criticize another person and the memory and consequence can last a lifetime. It is this severe and often lasting impact of violence and negativity that muddles our appreciation for the overwhelming amount of cooperation and consideration all around us.
So why did we orient the modern world’s commerce and governance on competition and mistrust, rather than cooperation and trust? What would have us think that we must pit individuals, companies, organizations, political parties, and countries in an endless competition for success?
At the heart of my work is the advancement of coordination and collaboration as a far more productive and efficient basis for guiding our business and governing activities than competition. But before I could establish my confidence in man’s ability to collaborate and work in the best interests of the community I had to ponder, as many of us do… What is the true nature of man?
Particularly in America, we have been taught that striving for individual success is best for everyone because the authority on the subject Charles Darwin said that evolution depended on it. “Survival of the Fittest”, which implies that humans by nature are selfish, and that selfishness drives the advancement of the species, may have made more of a lasting influence on our society than any other interpretation.
So it occurred to me to read The Origin of Species to see what Darwin actually said, not what I have been told he said. And what I found was that Charles Darwin never uses the term “Survival of the Fittest.” Instead, he wrote that species, ecosystems, communities, and individuals organize themselves around the long term interests of the community and future generations. In nature, the community provides the best perches, the best food, and the best resources to those amongst them that are strongest and therefore produce the healthiest offspring. He was inspired by the sacrifice and commitment of individuals to place their communities’ best interests before their own. Harmony with the community, not domination of the community, is what he observed. Charles Darwin said that individuals in nature are inherently social and communal and that is what provides sustainability.
So how did we come to misapply what Darwin wrote in Origin of the Species? We remember that this was the mid-19th century when American and British industrialists desperately wanted a belief system to justify their accumulation of large amounts of control and cash in their own hands, not spread around to their brethren. So they sponsored members of a new intellectual field called Social Philosophy, Herbert Spencer among them, to promote a misreading of The Origin of Species and give their domination cover. The public’s access to the actual book was rare, influenced instead by public talks and articles by these social philosophers.
I will never forget what I discovered from my readings of Charles Darwin’s own writings outside of The Origin of Species. He relates that as he observed the complex interworking of plants and animals, in tide pools and hatcheries, he was struck by enormous intricacy, beauty, and selflessness. He said that after all explanations are posed, including Natural Selection, he arrived beyond rationality where he simply appreciates the presence of God.
As we face a world where environmental stress and extreme violence are having an outsize impact on our peace and prosperity do we continue to think, plan, and act as if people are inherently self-centered which clearly limits our power to address these challenges, or do we embrace the reality of man’s inherent commitment to the community and our offspring?
Working collaboratively among business, government, and communities, we can move beyond incremental progress to place railroads at the dynamic center of an optimal transportation system for a revitalized economy and environment.